What is granulation?

You may have heard me mention the term granulation, but what is it?

Granulation is an ancient jewelry making technique that is extremely difficult to master and rarely practiced today. It’s believed to have originated in ancient Sumer over 5000 years ago. Personally, when I think of granulation, the Etruscans come to mind. They are one of my favorite civilizations from antiquity and their granulation was incredible. They worked with some of the smallest granules I have seen, inspiring me to work tiny, like I’ve done in the Slither band.

Before I get into the history, it’s important to understand what it is. Granulation involves shaping fine wires and tiny spheres of gold (granules) into patterns onto a gold surface. Once a gold base is created and the wires and granules are slowly arranged, all the pieces must be fused together. The previous steps require skill, but mostly patience; fusing requires a great deal of skill and mastery of the torch. This is where most don’t succeed. The piece is heated slowly bringing it within a few degrees of melting. With small flashes of heat, the whole piece begins to sparkle as the elements bond together. Too much heat and the piece will melt, too little and the elements will not join.

For the reasons mentioned, this technique is not popular. It does not lend itself to modern ways of making and our faster pace schedules. It truly requires time, patience and perseverance.

Now that you understand the process, I would love to share examples from history. The examples span thousands of years, across Europe and Asia, looking at gold pieces in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

BABYLON

We have to start with Babylon, the believed origins of granulation. This cylinder seal, from the 17th century BCE, shows a classic granulation pattern, the pyramid. I was even guilty of falling into this design early on. It’s inevitable, it is a shape the granules naturally love to form and satisfying to arrange.

ITALY

Let’s fast forward 1200 years to the 5th century BCE in present day Italy.

The Etruscans used granulation a little differently than most others. Their approach, much like myself, is to use the technique as a texture rather than design and they favored the smallest of granules. I often wonder how they managed to make those tiny granules with the tools available. As you can see in the pins, the heads have sections defined by a wire and filled in with granules. You can see how I’ve interpreted this concept in my Miniature World earrings.

GREECE

Now we move to Greece. The ancient Greek production of jewelry and specifically granulation was prolific. It is a rabbit hole you can (and should) get lost in.

The griffin headed earrings illustrate that granulation is not only granules, but also wire. You can see in the flowers that the design is an arrangement of shaped wires attached in the same method granules are. If you do decide to go down the rabbit hole, you will realize the flower, “rosette” as it’s called, is present in most Ancient Greek jewelry. Since we’re not all lucky enough to have a piece of ancient Greek jewelry in our personal collection, you can add some antiquity to your wardrobe with my modern day Rosette earrings.

CYPRUS

Now we move into the Bronze Age, on the island of Cyprus. This piece shows that granulation can adorn a sculptural surface. This is something I continue to study.Creating a shape like this takes years of mastering metal forming. This piece also reminds us of the softness of high karat gold. Notice how all of the granules have become flattened from years of handling.

IRAN

A quick trip down the Silk Road and we find ourselves in Iran during the Fatimid period. In this example, you can see granulation combined with another ancient technique called filigree, which is actually fused in a similar way.  

ITALY

Finally, I would like to go back to Italy in the 1800’s to look at an example of Castellani. Without him, myself and the few others practicing granulation today would likely not be here and perhaps it would be a lost art.

He is often credited with reviving granulation. His work was true to the style of Ancient Greek and Etruscan jewelry, where more is more and never enough. It is amazing to hold one of these pieces in your hand because it seems like an impossible feat to fit so much into a tiny space. The example I chose is not the best representation of his work, but how could I resist an owl. Bobo, Athena’s owl, is my insignia after all.

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Granulation